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Westside Atlanta Charter … Changing Lives One Young Life at a Time

Mike Klein

Mike Klein

Republished by Charter Confidential

Frank Sinatra made the New York myth and legend seem so attractive – “I want to be part of it, New York, New York” – but after living her entire life there Adrienne Brooks wanted out. “You rush through everything in New York. You eat fast, you walk fast, you go, go, go,” she said. “I’m like, I need more grass area, not so much cement everywhere.”

Brooks especially wanted something different for her son, Christian. Three years ago this single mother said good riddance Big Apple, hello Atlanta. “I needed more space for him. I needed him to be outside running, playing and just enjoying that. You get that here in Georgia.”

They moved into an apartment northwest of downtown Atlanta and then Brooks went shopping. Not in Buckhead, not for shoes and swag, but shopping for her young son’s education. Brooks enrolled Christian in first grade at Westside Atlanta Charter School when it opened in fall 2013. She enlisted as a parent volunteer and later was hired as the school’s parent liaison.

“My budget is tight. It’s just me and my son,” Brooks said. “Every little penny I’m looking at to see where can this go, how much can I afford to spend, am I able to send (Christian) to a great school where you get the private school experience but I’m not paying the private school price.”

A field trip to Westside Atlanta Charter School was part of the “Amplify School Choice” conference hosted April 24-25 in Atlanta by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Two days of wonky talk led by experts from prominent policy organizations was wrapped around an opportunity to tour Westside Atlanta’s 163-student campus northwest of downtown.  (See website links below.)

Adrienne Brooks and her son Christian

Adrienne Brooks and her son Christian

“Most parents have had the experience where their kids were just lost in the sauce, meaning they were in these big classrooms,” Brooks said. “If your child is not that child that just stands out the teacher has so many kids that they don’t get that one-on-one-attention. Here it’s very small. The teachers have personal relationships with the children and the families.”

Westside Atlanta is located on Drew Drive in what can appropriately be described as a revitalization community. “Homes are starting to come out of the ground again,” said executive director Pete Settelmayer. He describes the location as “between Bankhead and Buckhead.” Forty-two percent of students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. Twenty-seven percent live in west Highlands which is a combination of middle class and subsidized public housing.

“This was set up to be the East Lake of the west side about 2004, 2005. Then we all know what happened in 2007,” Settelmayer said. The economic recession that started in 2008 significantly slowed down the aggressive project. And therein, an opportunity developed. Columbia Residential founder Noel Khalil gave Westside Atlanta Charter a $1-per-year lease to occupy unused commercial space for up to 11 years. The campus also includes a large modular facility for the Upper School.

Like every public charter school, Westside Atlanta is required to meet all Georgia state educational standards, but that is merely a starting point. “Our focus is to teach the children, not teach the test,” Settelmayer said. “We’re going to teach them to think critically.  We’re going to teach them to solve problems.  We’re going to teach them to have a go at things on their own with our support because at this level they need support.”

The Franklin Center conference brought together experts on virtually every subject central to parental school choice, especially funding formulas. The concept that public tax dollars should follow the student would do much to put parents in charge of education rather than the current model that favors funding school districts rather than funding individual student education.

“Americans want more freedom in almost every walk of their life,” Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice senior fellow Ben Scafidi told the conference. Scafidi is former chair of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission. “The reason we’re not getting it in schools is because there is a very well-funded, entrenched opposition but it’s going to come. Intelligent people that aren’t paid by the public school system are not on their side anymore. The politics have changed.”

Politics were not part of what Adrienne Brooks was thinking about when she decided to start over in Atlanta. For young Christian she wanted to replicate the quality of the Catholic School education she had as a child in New York, but at a price that she could afford. Brooks looked at several options before she decided on Westside Atlanta Charter School.

“It works because you have huge parental involvement,” Brooks said. “It’s one thing to have your teachers involved; that’s their job. They teach because they love it; that’s their passion. It’s another when you actually have the parental support. If the parent support is not there it’s hard for the school to survive. We make it feasible for them to be involved.”

Additional Resources:

Faith and Freedom Coalition
Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity
Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice
Foundation for Excellence in Education
Georgia Center for Opportunity
Georgia Public Policy Foundation
Westside Atlanta Charter School

(Mike Klein specializes in criminal justice, public education and economic development journalism and event production. He has held leadership positions with several media organizations including CNN as Vice President of News Production. Mike on LinkedIn.)

April 27, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tapestry Public Charter School’s Special Mission



First in a series of articles about new Georgia start-up public charter schools.

Devon Orland Christopher has a high profile position as the state’s senior assistant attorney general for civil rights litigation but her job as Mom is way more important.

“My son is what they call twice exceptional. He’s gifted. That is what gave birth to the school,” said Christopher who is co-founder of the Tapestry Public Charter School that opened today in DeKalb County. Co-founder Tonna Harris-Bosselmann also has an autistic spectrum child.

Autism is one among several behavioral disorders that can affect how children interact and engage socially. Their chances to succeed often are enhanced in smaller group settings and they sometimes struggle in the larger student populations found in many public schools.

Tapestry designed an individualized instruction model with a very small 8-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio in four core subjects – English, social studies, math and science. Core subject instructors will be joined in the classroom by special education teachers. “There are lots of kids who can benefit from an individualized curriculum with smaller classes,” said Christopher.

Tapestry LogoElective courses that include drama will be offered with a 16-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio, which is still much lower than many public schools. Other electives include computer class, yearbook production and visual arts, but there are some sacrifices. “We don’t have the full conduit of services that you expect in a middle school. No football, no marching band,” said Christopher.

Tapestry Charter found its home for 96 middle school students in renovated space at Northeast Baptist Church in Norcross. The ground game to launch Tapestry began three years ago for Christopher, Harris-Bosselmann and their partners. Tapestry secured charter authorization through the DeKalb County School Board. The school receives about $8,000 per pupil in total public funding and it has raised about $100,000 in private capital, which is a small amount.

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” said Christopher. “If you do a conversion school you’ve got a building, you’ve got supplies, you’ve got all that. If you do a start-up, you’ve got nothing. You have to have space before you can submit your petition and most people aren’t really willing to sign a lease a couple years in advance. Fortunately with the folks at the church we were able to work it out but had they changed their minds we would have been in a world of hurt.”

Image from Tapestry Public Charter School Facebook page

Image from Tapestry Public Charter School Facebook page

Tapestry’s charter is authorization to offer grades 6-through-12. The plan is to add one new grade each school calendar year, starting with ninth grade in fall 2015 until Tapestry offers complete middle and high school curriculum in the 2018-to-2019 school calendar year.

A lottery was held to select this year’s 96 middle schoolers. The wait list has 100 more. “Our goal is to create a model that can be replicated,” said Christopher. “Autism has gone from one-in-10,000 in the Eighties and now its one-in-42 boys. Many of these kids have amazing skills and ability to be quite successful in a different learning environment. A sea of 1,900 people is just too much for them. Otherwise they can learn, develop, grow and become successful.”

Harris-Bosselmann teaches at the University of North Georgia. “The education piece would not have come together without her,” said Christopher. Tapestry principal Amanda Chilvers served two years on the new school’s advisory council prior to this appointment. Previously she held several positions at the Atlanta Area School for the Deaf. “We birthed the baby but she’s got to raise it,” Christopher said about Chilvers. “That is our most critical hire. We have amazing faith in her.”

Tapestry Public Charter School Website

Tapestry on Facebook

Wednesday: THINC College and Career Academy in Troup County

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

August 11, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Big Brother Knows Best Mentality Works Against School Choice

Louisiana Court Rejects Funding Formula; Texas Lawmakers Reject Choice

Mike Klein

Mike Klein

This week’s Louisiana Supreme Court opinion that struck down a school choice funding formula finds the usual suspects who want to prevent families from using their tax-paid dollars to send their children to the schools of their choice.  As we saw in Georgia, people who stand in opposition to expanded school choice believe the money belongs to them, which is a big brother knows best mentality.

Some Louisiana background:  The state was in education chaos before Hurricane Katrina swept through eight years ago.  The unanticipated blessing from that life changing hurricane was that it gave the state, communities and families an opportunity to rebuild horrible school systems, notably in New Orleans.

Especially during current Gov. Bobby Jindal’s tenure Louisiana has started to reinvent education with the idea that when you start with a clean slate, you might improve over what was there earlier.

This, of course, is a free market education idea so it stands to reason that people who want to continue the big-brother-knows-best mentality would be none too pleased at bolder and fresher ideas.  One among several ideas was Jindal’s creation of a voucher scholarship program that provided 5,000 low income students the opportunity for expanded school choice somewhere other than their local brick-and-mortar neighborhood school.  Louisiana Scholarship Program enrollment for next fall would be 8,000 students or about two-thirds of all pupils who applied.

You can guess who got uptight and went to court; that would be the associations that represent Louisiana teachers and public school system boards of education.  These are the same kinds of organizations that went to court in Georgia after the 2008 General Assembly created a path and the funding formula for expanded charter school options.  In Georgia, you can throw in the very vocal association for state superintendents that fought furiously to overturn the state law.

The Georgia Supreme Court ruled against the creation of a charter schools alternate authorizer. The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled against the vouchers funding formula without making a comment on school choice proper, but the effect unless somehow remedied would be to reduce options for families.  Georgia lost its leadership position on school choice but fortunately last November voters here sent a different message when they reinstated the idea of an alternate authorizer, meaning a new State Charter Schools Commission of Georgia that began its work this spring.

Louisiana’s Governor – who many believe has White House aspirations – issued a statement that tried to assure families the state budget will find the money to keep choice alive although Jindal’s initial statement did not provide any additional detail about how to make that possible.

School choice – the bigger idea of it at all – is no longer in question.  Whatever you think about the current White House administration, the President, the Department of Education and the Republican and Democratic national party platforms are all on board with school choice.  There are still those trying to erect roadblocks and overall, school choice work certainly is not done.

The appetite for new aggressive school choice legislation was limited during this year’s Georgia General Assembly.  Most wind went out of the sails after last year’s bitterly contested effort that resulted in the constitutional amendment that voters overwhelmingly approved last November.  An enhanced tax credit scholarship bill passed, as did a clean-up of the existing special needs scholarship.  A “parent trigger bill” that would allow parents or school personnel the right to convert failing traditional public schools to charter schools passed the House.

What legislatures and state courts are doing with school choice across the country is a muddle.  School choice advocates in Texas cannot get their bills through the House which rejected a bill last month.  This legislative recalcitrance goes against the grain of Texans.  A Texas Public Policy Foundation study published last week said two-thirds of Texans favor the creation of statewide education scholarships and 72 percent favor business tax credits for private schools.

Contrast the Louisiana and Georgia judicial experiences with Indiana where the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously – the vote was 5-0 – in April that public tax dollars could be used to fund private school tuition.  The Louisiana Supreme Court vote was nearly unanimous – 6-1 to strike down using public tax dollars to fund private school tuition in a vouchers program.

Families must be allowed to use their tax-paid dollars to send their children to the schools of their choice.  Not the government’s choice, not the choice of school boards or unions that represent teachers.   It is their choice, the folks who actually paid the tax dollars.  Keep Choice Alive!

(Click here to read the new Friedman Foundation analysis “A Win-Win Solution — The Empirical Evidence on School Choice” that examines the impact on students and communities.  Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.)

May 10, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Digital Learning, Re-Entry Lead List of Criminal Justice Priorities

Mike Klein

Mike Klein

Georgia’s next justice reform priorities will include expanded digital learning in juvenile sectors and increased focus on transitioning paroled adult inmates back into society with more than a few bucks and a bus ticket.  Governor Nathan Deal discussed these priorities during an Atlanta speech on Tuesday, two days before he is scheduled to sign juvenile justice reform legislation.

Deal said the state will partner with Provost Academy Georgia to provide digital learning resources to juveniles, starting with some 140 who participate in the Georgia National Guard Youth Challenge programs at Fort Gordon near Augusta and Fort Stewart in Hinesville.

“These are young men and women who are on the verge of being sent into our juvenile detention system,” Deal said during prepared remarks at the Capital City Club in Atlanta.  “We are entering into an agreement with a digital based charter school, Provost, and they are going to be providing the opportunity for these young people to earn a regular high school diploma.” (Click here to watch on YouTube)

Currently, most Youth Challenge juveniles can work toward earning a GED certificate, but not a real high school diploma.  Deal predicted the Provost Academy model could be incorporated into the more traditional juvenile justice system which at any point has 22,000 youth either in detention or assigned to a community-based program.

“Young people who have been in trouble have a great deal of difficulty returning to the school which they left before they got in trouble,” Deal told the Atlanta Press Club audience.  “All of the social stigma that is associated with it is a huge deterrent for them to just simply drop out.

“If they can take that digital learning opportunity with them back home and they can continue their education without having to physically go back to the school where they have the bad reputation … the chance that they will get a high school diploma and be able to move on with their lives is much greater and we think that is the right thing to do,” the Governor said.

Provost Academy Georgia opened last August with 134 students.  Today it serves 1,276 high school students in distance learning structured for independent instruction or blended learning that provides an option to include face-to-face instruction.  Provost also operates Magic Johnson Bridgescape Learning Centers in Atlanta, Macon and Savannah with an Augusta site scheduled to open this month.  Provost programs are associated with Edison Learning.

Under the proposed plan, Provost Academy’s initial pilot program will enroll 70 Youth Challenge cadets apiece at Fort Gordon and Fort Stewart, starting in late July, said Provost executive director Monica Henson.  “Governor Deal is committed to extending opportunities to needy kids and these are the neediest of the needy,” Henson said.  “We really appreciate this opportunity because our mission is to serve historically underserved populations.”

On Thursday, Governor Deal is expected to sign HB 242 that emphasizes incarceration for serious juvenile offenders and less expensive community-based resources for non-violent offenders who are not a public safety risk.  These alternative treatment concepts are based on the December 2012 Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform recommendations. The bill also includes a massive overhaul of the state’s juvenile civil code.  Click here to learn more about juvenile justice reform legislation.

Adult and juvenile justice reforms have been central targets for Deal since his inauguration.  The 2011 Legislature established the Special Council whose members produced the 2012 adult laws rewrite and now the 2013 juvenile laws rewrite.  For Deal, the finished and proposed work is a recognition that Georgia was at least spinning its wheels, if not going backward.

“We have been a state like many states that had been the hard-on crime approach with very little flexibility built into the system,” Deal said in his Atlanta speech.  “We recognized if you were objective about the issue that we were not achieving the results that people expected.”

Specifically, one-in-three paroled adults and one-in-two released juveniles return to the criminal or juvenile justice system within three years.  “What we were doing was not the right thing,” Deal said.  “It did not keep us safe and it did not save taxpayers money.  We were spending over $1 billion a year in our corrections programs and yet, nobody could be proud of those results.”

(Click here to learn more about justice reform on the Pew Charitable Trusts website.  Click here for the Right on Crime website at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.  Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.) 

May 1, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Second Adult Criminal Justice Reform Bill Becomes Law

Mike Klein

Mike Klein

Governor Nathan Deal on Thursday signed an adult criminal justice reform bill that revises minimum mandatory sentencing laws, expands the state’s right to evidence appeals and creates a new criminal justice reform council that will remain on-the-watch until 2023.  In sum, the state will continue to consider criminal justice best practices for another ten years.

The House Bill 349 signing ceremony was held in Marietta where Deal said, “When I first became Governor I was concerned about something that I was told Republicans shouldn’t really be concerned about and that was the fact that we were the tenth largest state in population but that we had the fourth largest prison population.

“We had had a ‘tough on crime’ stance in this state for many years,” the Governor told Kiwanis members, “not that it was inappropriate but in hindsight I felt it was not achieving the results that we wanted.” (Watch Deal’s remarks on YouTube.)

Two years ago Deal and the General Assembly created a Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform that paved the way for last year’s major overhaul of adult criminal justice policies.  The door was opened to alternative courts and other ideas that potentially reduce incarceration for non-violent offenders but enable the state to always securely lock away truly violent offenders.

The legislation that Governor Deal signed Thursday revises mandatory minimum sentencing options for some drug cases when the judge believes circumstances do not warrant imposition of the more severe mandatory minimum sentence.   HB 349 also gives judges leeway to impose a lesser sentence in sexual offense and serious violence cases when prosecutors and defense counsel agree circumstances do not warrant the more severe mandatory minimum sentence.

Governor Nathan Deal signs criminal justice reform  legislation Thursday in Marietta.  (Photo by Alana Joyner, Governor's Office)

Governor Nathan Deal signs criminal justice reform legislation Thursday in Marietta. (Photo by Alana Joyner, Governor’s Office)

House Bill 349 also changes state law that currently requires prosecutors to prove a defendant “knowingly” trafficked drugs of a specific type and weight.  After July 1, the date on which the bill takes effect, police and prosecutors will not be required to prove that a drug trafficking defendant knew the weight of illegal drugs.  This new drug trafficking prosecution law will then become consistent with simple possession drug laws that passed the General Assembly last year.

On the question of evidence appeals, prosecutors will be allowed a direct appeal to the Court of Appeals of Georgia or the state Supreme Court if a lower court excludes prosecution evidence during pre-trial proceedings.  This section of HB 349 was not included in the December 2012 Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform recommendations.  Indeed, it was highly emphasized by the state’s district attorneys and it was included after fairly intense back-and-forth negotiations.

“This bill gives us the ability as prosecutors, when we believe the court has incorrectly ruled on an evidentiary issue, to then take that to the appellate court and have it reviewed,” said Chuck Spahos, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia.

Some opponents said in legislative hearings that expanded evidence appeals might delay speedy trials.  “I don’t believe that’s going to be a huge issue,” Spahos said during an interview.  “I don’t believe it’s going to create a large floodgate of appellate cases or interfere with speedy trials.”  (Watch the Spahos interview on YouTube .)

Deal will sign juvenile justice reform legislation next week.  Like its earlier adult justice system cousin, HB 242 emphasizes community-based local alternative resources for juveniles who are not a public safety threat, underscores the intent to incarcerate violent juveniles and it recreates the state’s antiquated juvenile civil code, especially as it pertains to children in need of services, adoption, dependency cases, parental rights and dozens of other juvenile non-criminal issues.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.)

April 26, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pew Poll: Solid Real World Support for Juvenile Justice Reform

Mike Klein

Mike Klein

Georgians appear ready to embrace juvenile justice reforms that would focus the state’s lock-ups on higher-level offenders and put new emphasis on less expensive and more effective community resources for lower-level offenders.  And by Georgians, we mean folks out there in the real world, well beyond the State Capitol in Atlanta.

A newly released poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and the Mellman Group for the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project found proposed reforms in HB 242 enjoy widespread support among conservatives, liberals and independents.  The bill would enact recommendations from the 2012 Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform. HB 242 is scheduled for its first Senate hearing on Wednesday; it unanimously passed the House.

The Special Council found that the state’s secure residential facilities cost an average of about $90,000 per bed per year.  Despite these huge expenditures, more than 50 percent of the adjudicated youth in the juvenile justice system are re-adjudicated delinquent or convicted of a criminal offense within three years of release.

To address this poor return on investment, the Council produced a set of recommendations that have been included in HB 242 that would revise the juvenile designated felony act, reduce the number of lower-risk youthful offenders sent to secure facilities, emphasize community resources for lower-level juveniles and provide funding to help create or expand local programs.

In the survey, 92 percent of Georgians agreed that expensive facilities should be reserved for higher risk juveniles and alternatives that cost less should be available for lower-risk juveniles.

Governor Nathan Deal made juvenile justice reform a priority in his State of the State address.  “Let’s capitalize on the success that we have already had in criminal justice reform,” Deal said with a nod to last year’s adult corrections reform legislation contained in HB 1176.  Deal called for “community-based, non-confinement correctional methods for low-risk offenders.”

“Georgians strongly support proposals to reduce the size and cost of the juvenile corrections system and to reinvest savings into effective alternatives to secure facilities,” stated the pollsters in the Pew-commissioned Public Attitudes on the Juvenile Justice System in Georgia.”   Six hundred registered voters participated in the survey.

When pollsters asked whether Georgia should “send fewer lower-risk juvenile offenders to a secure facility and use some of the savings to create a stronger probation system that holds juvenile offenders accountable for their crimes,” the answer was “Yes” from Democrats (91 percent), Republicans (86 percent) and Independents (83 percent).

Sixty-nine percent said strict probation supervision, counseling and remaining with families in their own homes were more likely than secure facilities to reduce the rate at which juveniles would commit new crimes.  Again, that was the view of Democrats (76 percent), Independents (68 percent) and Republicans (63 percent).

When asked about specific proposals from the Special Council that are included in HB 242, 92 percent of Georgians agreed the juvenile designated felony act should be rewritten to differentiate between more serious felonies such as murder and less serious offenses such as “smash-and-grab” burglary.  Support among voters who identified themselves as Democrats, Republicans or Independents ranged between 90-to-97 percent.

When asked about creating a fiscal incentive grant program to reward counties that send fewer lower-risk juvenile offenders to expensive state facilities by sharing some of the savings to reinvest in local programs – a proposal Governor Deal announced in his State of the State address – 85 percent of Georgians agreed. Again, support was consistently strong among Republicans (89 percent), Democrats (83 percent) and Independents (81 percent).

“Across the political spectrum, Georgians want a system that protects public safety, holds juvenile offenders accountable and contains corrections spending,” said Jason Newman, a public safety expert with The Pew Charitable Trusts.  “Georgia voters strongly support proposals to reduce the size and cost of the juvenile corrections system and to reinvest savings into effective alternatives.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee will hear HB 242 testimony at 4:00 p.m. Wednesday in room 307 of the Coverdell Legislative Office Building at the State Capitol.  Adult corrections system reforms that passed the House in HB 349 will be discussed in a Senate Judiciary Non-Civil Committee hearing that starts at 3:00 p.m., also at the same location.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.) 

March 13, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Georgia Public Schools Employ More Staff Than Teachers

Mike Klein

Mike Klein

Georgia lawmakers filed about five dozen public education bills in this year’s General Assembly, bills that address funding formulas, enhancements to parental school choice, tax credits, ideas to preserve HOPE financial aid, additional days for pre-K education programs and many more.

Here is something lawmakers might want to think about:  Why was the employment growth rate for Georgia public school administrators and non-teaching staff nearly double the percentage growth rate in total student population between 1992 and 2009, at enormous real cost?  Also, why does Georgia employ more administrators and non-teaching staff than teachers?

This data is found in “The School Staffing Surge,” a new report from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.  Georgia is named among 21 states in which administrators and non-teaching staff outnumbered teachers in 2009.  The District of Columbia is a state for purposes of this report, so that means teachers outnumber all other staffers in 30 remaining states.

Writing last fall in part one of “The School Staffing Surge,” author Benjamin Scafidi found that the public school system employment explosion did not have a direct relationship to improved pupil academic performance.  Scafidi relies on 1992 – 2009 data from the National Center for Education Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education.

Here are the primary Georgia-based findings, as reported by Scafidi:

  • Georgia public school student population grew 41 percent between 1992 and 2009, but there was a 74 percent increase in administrators and other non-teaching staff.
  • Georgia school districts employed 120,300 administrators and other non-teaching staff in 2009.  That number would have been 97,169 if non-teaching staff employment grew at exactly the same percentage rate as the student population between 1992 and 2009.
  • Georgia would have saved $925 million in non-teaching staff salaries if employment had grown at the same percentage rate as the student population.
  • Georgia teachers could have received $7,786 in pay raises.
  • In 2009, Georgia public schools had 1,461 more non-teaching staff than teachers.

Although Georgia makes the list of states that employed more staff than teachers in 2009, it is not near the top, ranked 18th among 21 states.  Virginia had 60,737 more staff than teachers and it received a distinction as the “Most Top-Heavy” state.  Among southern states, Kentucky, Mississippi and Louisiana also employed more staff than teachers.

Nationally, the report finds that public school systems could have saved $24.3 billion in 2009, based on a $40,000 per year per employee cost for non-teaching staff.  The definition for staff is, literally, anyone who is not a lead teacher from superintendents to bus drivers, maintenance staff and anyone else on a public school payroll. “That $24.3 billion would be annual recurring savings in public schools that could be used for other worthy purposes,” the report said.

Writing in the executive summary, Scafidi concludes, in part, “One should ask whether the significant resources used to finance employment increases could have been spent better elsewhere … The burden of proof is now on those who still want to maintain or even increase the dramatically larger staffing levels in public schools.”

Click here to read the complete report and access several tables with state-by-state data.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.)

March 7, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Georgia House Passes Juvenile Justice Bill 173-0

Mike Klein

Mike Klein

The Georgia House voted 173 – 0 Thursday morning to pass juvenile justice and civil code reforms that would dramatically change our response to young people who commit crimes, run away,  violate probation or who are in desperate need of services.  HB 242, the biggest rethink in Georgia juvenile strategies in decades, is a massive 244-page bill that would rewrite juvenile justice and civil code.  Now the bill moves to the Senate.  (Watch the House floor discussion and vote.)

Friday the House is scheduled to vote on HB 349, companion legislation for the adult system that would change the minimum mandatory sentencing laws for drug trafficking and other serious felony crimes.  The bill would also create a new Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform that would conduct biennial adult and juvenile justice system reviews through June 2023.

Georgia’s juvenile code is a patchwork quilt of rules and regulations that all too often find the code at odds with itself and, at least, difficult to interpret.  Two hundred page of HB 242 is the result of several years’ work by advocates and legislators.  It would update code that in some instances dates back to the early 1970’s.

Juvenile justice reforms contained in HB 242 are the result of recommendations of the Governor’s Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform.  Their recommendations are intended to hold offenders accountable, increase public safety and reduce the cost of the juvenile justice system.

Right now the state spends $300 million per year on the Department of Juvenile Justice, but more than half of juveniles who leave the juvenile justice system are convicted of a new offense within three years.  In addition, nearly one in four youth in an out-of-home facility is adjudicated for low-level offenses, including misdemeanors or status offenses and approximately 40 percent of all juveniles in out-of-home placements are assessed as a low risk to offend.

The juvenile justice system reforms in HB 242 would focus the state’s out-of-home facilities on higher-level offenders and implement reforms focused on reducing the likelihood that juveniles will re-offend.  Governor Nathan Deal has included $5 million in his Fiscal 2014 budget (plus an additional $1 million in federal funding) to expand community-based programs for these lower-risk offenders.

Many of these strategies are adopted from or build on ideas already implemented in states like Ohio, Texas, and Illinois that have proven effective.  These states have lessons for Georgia.

Ohio committed to juvenile reforms in the 1990’s and almost two decades later Ohio has shown there is merit to focusing expensive state resources on the highest risk juveniles and providing community-based services for lower risk offenders.  When Ohio began its reforms 20 years ago, the state’s juvenile custody population had increased 40 percent in the previous 13 years and their facilities were at 180 percent of capacity.

The state’s leaders decided to change course and created RECLAIM Ohio which provided fiscal incentives to build and use community-based options.  Since creating this state / local partnership, the state’s juvenile custody population has dropped from more than 2,600 to about 650, the state has closed four facilities, and the state has reinvested more than $330 million back to communities to create more than 600 local programs.  Most importantly, public safety has improved as the state has found that all but the very high risk offenders have lower recidivism rates in the community-based programs than in the secure facilities.

Illinois began a similar state / local partnership when it created Redeploy Illinois with 15 counties in 2005; four years later it expanded to 28 counties.  “Philosophically, policy wise, system wise, Redeploy Illinois is exactly what we should be doing,” said John Maki, executive director of the Chicago-based John Howard Association that specializes in adult and juvenile justice system reforms.

There is no denying the benefit that participating counties have seen.  Juveniles who were assigned to Redeploy Illinois have had a 17.4 percent re-arrest rate vs. 72 percent for youths sent to state facilities.  Re-incarceration rates are also way down 14.2 vs. 57.2 percent.

“The goal of Redeploy was to be able to let counties craft their own evidence-based program to meet what they think their local needs are.  To me, that is the genius of it,” Maki said.  “I would love to see it expand, particularly in Cook County.”

Before Redeploy Illinois the state detained about 1,400 juveniles per day in secure custody; now it detains about 900.  Two juvenile facilities are scheduled for closures that will save the state about $17 million per year.  “I look at what is going on in our juvenile system as promising,” Maki said.

Texas earned a national reputation for adult criminal justice system reforms that began in 2007.  The state was also aggressive with juvenile reform.  As in Ohio and some Illinois counties, the emphasis is on focusing out-of-home facilities on higher-level offenders and providing more effective, and less expensive, community-based programs for lower-level offenders.

One thing that Texas did was to stop sentencing juveniles convicted of juvenile offenses to state facilities, something Ohio had also done long ago.  In addition, the state created a fiscal incentives system for local probation departments similar to Ohio and Illinois.  The Georgia Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform made the same recommendations for Georgia, and they are included in HB 242 and the Governor’s Budget Report.

Texas has seen positive results.  Youths committed to Texas secure facilities declined from 3,000 in 2006 to about 1,000 today.  Texas closed two youth facilities and saved $117 million.  Today the state spends about $85.4 million per year on community programs and $41.7 m illion on juvenile secure detention facilities.

The Texas legislative budget office issued a report this year that analyzed the outcomes for adults and juveniles released from state custody in 2007 or 2008.  Citing positive results, the report said Texas reduced youths in state secure facilities 67 percent since reforms, and juvenile arrests are down 18 percent compared to 13 percent nationally.

“Ohio, Illinois and Texas are showing the rest of the country that states can cut costs, cut crime, and put more youths on the right track to productive, law-abiding lives,” said Jeanette Moll, juvenile justice policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.  “It’s time for other states to start getting a better return on their investment in juvenile justice.”

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

February 28, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

New Criminal Justice Reform Council Proposed Through 2023

Mike Klein

Mike Klein

Georgia would establish an ongoing criminal justice reform council to oversee adult and juvenile justice issues in the state as part of proposed sentencing and corrections legislation being considered by lawmakers this session.

In addition, adult criminal court judges would be allowed to depart from minimum mandatory sentences in a significantly small number of drug trafficking cases under legislation now before a House committee.  Many of the provisions in HB 349 were developed by the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform.  The Special Council’s juvenile justice recommendations are contained in HB 242.

This week will be important for both pieces of legislation.  Tuesday afternoon, the House Judiciary committee members voted to pass HB 242 as expected.  HB 349 had its first hearing Friday afternoon, and a second hearing is anticipated on Thursday.

The extension of the Council process that began two years ago provides a strong indication criminal that reforming Georgia’s criminal justice system and effectively implementing the new policies will remain a priority for at least ten years.  The Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform was authorized by the 2011 General Assembly to focus on adults.  Governor Nathan Deal used an executive order to keep the Council intact to focus on juveniles.

Under HB 349, a new Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform would be created for ten years through June 2023.  As currently drafted, legislation stipulates the Governor would name five-of-15 members, including the chairman.  Terms would be four years with possible reappointment.  The judiciary, state agencies, sheriffs, prosecutors and public defenders would have representation.

The Council would conduct biennial adult and juvenile system reviews.  It would have authority to retain outside consultants and it would be attached to the Governor’s Office for Children and Families for staff and funding.

This is the second consecutive year that the Special Council recommended that Superior Court judges should be allowed discretion from mandatory minimum sentences in a small number of drug trafficking cases.  “Our drug statutes are very rarely capturing the kingpins who we were intending to capture.  You’re generally capturing the mules,” Special Council co-chair and Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs told a House committee Friday afternoon.

Last year state prisons admitted 2,672 inmates who were convicted of drug trafficking.  Fewer than 5 percent – 129 inmates – would have qualified for possible reduced sentences.  Georgia law stipulates five-to-25-year minimum sentences based on the weight and type of drug.  If enacted, changes would allow judges to reduce sentences and fines by up to 50 percent.

Defendants would be eligible for reduced sentences if they met all five requirements:  A) No prior felony conviction; B) was not a ringleader of the conduct; C) did not use a weapon; D) the criminal conduct did not result in death or serious bodily injury to any victim; and, E) the judge determines justice would not be well served by imposing the minimum mandatory sentence.

“The bill does not abolish mandatory minimums for drug trafficking,” Boggs said. “All it does is set a lower minimum threshold that the judge could consider under appropriate circumstances.  The judge is not required to deviate, only that the judge may.”  (Click here to watch testimony.)

The bill also proposes more judicial discretion to minimum mandatory sentences for serious violent offenders, sexual offenders and repeat offenders.  Criminal court judges could impose less than a minimum mandatory sentence upon agreement of the court, the prosecution and the defense. The legislation outlines several requirements that must be met for consideration.

HB 349 would change state law that requires prosecutors must prove a defendant “knowingly” trafficked drugs of a specific type and weight.  If enacted as written, HB 349 says prosecutors would not be required to prove a drug trafficking defendant knew the weight of illegal drugs.  Trafficking laws would become consistent with simple possession laws that passed last year.

Not everything in HB 349 originated with the Special Council.  Prosecutors are pushing a change that would allow direct appeal to the Court of Appeals of Georgia or the state Supreme Court if a lower court excludes prosecutorial evidence submitted during pre-trial.  An appeal above the trial court level could be triggered if prosecutors certify to the trial court that the excluded evidence is “substantial proof” in the case against the defendant.

Defense attorneys fear a virtually automatic evidentiary appeal to a higher court would delay trials.  “The party who is going to suffer most would be an indigent person who cannot afford to make a bond,” McDonough attorney Scott Key said Friday, “because as that case is delayed that person may languish in the county jail, behind the wire and in the hard bed at the expense of the county taxpayers.”  Key said long-term delays in molestation cases would potentially “worsen the trauma of the victim who has a pending case.”  (Click here to view testimony.)

HB 349 would expand judicial protections to children who witnessed sexual contact or physical abuse against another child.  Last year the state Supreme Court reversed a ruling from several years ago that said children who are witnesses are not afforded equal protections.  HB 349 would take the 2012 Supreme Court opinion and enact it as law.  (Click here to view testimony.)

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.)

February 20, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Juvenile Justice Bill Would Revise Designated Felony Act

Mike Klein

Mike Klein

Georgians will need a comfy couch, lots of time and perhaps some caffeine when they begin to read newly introduced juvenile justice and civil code legislation.  Juvenile justice provisions in House Bill 242 include a proposal to completely revise the state’s 32-year-old juvenile designated felony act, a long overdue step forward, by creating two classes of more and less serious juvenile felony crimes.

Juvenile civil code revisions would update laws that govern how juvenile courts operate and the rights of minors in custody and other situations.  The legislation is a comfy couch read at 244 pages.  The juvenile justice sections closely follow the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform recommendations, which were released in December.  Civil code updates, many years in progress, originated in HB 641 last year.

“We are light years from where we started from a political and a moral perspective in how we deal with criminal justice in this state for adults and juveniles,” said Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs who served as co-chair of the 2012 Special Council initiative.  “We have become smarter in the way we address the enormous cost and the horrible return on investment that our taxpayers are receiving.”

Last year the General Assembly enacted adult corrections system reforms that are now being implemented statewide. This year lawmakers will focus on how to fund more juvenile program resources in local communities, reduce juvenile inmate populations, address mental health and substance abuse treatment challenges, reduce recidivism, and keep a lid on escalating costs.

Georgia’s 1981-version of the juvenile Designated Felony Act included fewer than one dozen crimes, the worst crimes committed by the scariest youth.  Over more than three decades the Act was steadily expanded.  What you have today is a Felony Act that treats accused juvenile murderers about the same as juveniles accused of smash and grab burglaries.  Both are felony crimes.

HB 242 proposes to create a more serious “Class A” and less serious “Class B” structure that would give juvenile court judges greater latitude than they have today, especially in sentencing.  Accused murderers and burglars would no longer be treated alike.  The legislation is extremely detailed with specific crimes that would be considered more or less serious felonies.

If the bill is enacted as introduced, HB 242 would also prohibit the incarceration of status offenders and most juveniles adjudicated for misdemeanor crimes in secure facilities. Other provisions in the bill include focusing the state’s resources on programs proven to reduce recidivism, requiring the use of risk assessment tools, and mandating uniform data collection.

Governor Nathan Deal’s Budget Report also includes an additional recommendation from the Special Council – to create a performance incentive structure to reward jurisdictions with state funds when juvenile courts assign juveniles to community programs rather than incarcerate them in state facilities.  These additional state funds will then be used to create programs in the community to treat juveniles locally.

“This is a very positive step,” said House Judiciary Chairman Wendell Willard, lead sponsor of HB 242.  Governor Deal set aside $5 million in next year’s budget to expand community programs and jump-start new ones.  Some 65 percent of juveniles who do time in secure state facilities are found guilty of a new crime within three years of their release. Willard said the state must try new ways to avoid creating “lifetime criminals.  I think you will see a major savings in childrens’ lives.”

National studies including research compiled for Georgia by the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project show that placement in out-of-home facilities does not lower the likelihood of juvenile reoffending and may in fact increase the likelihood of committing a new crime for some offenders.  In fact, lock-ups sometimes produce a more sophisticated offender. This is more acute when youth require mental or substance abuse care.

Legislation proposes that youth adjudicated for a misdemeanor crime could not be sent to state confinement facilities.  They would become candidates for community treatment programs.  By enacting the recommendations of the Special Council, Georgia could reduce its juvenile inmate population by one-third to about 1,200, reinvest savings into local programs and save nearly $85 million over five years.  The result would be lower costs and reduced recidivism – significant improvements for Georgia taxpayers.

Georgia’s juvenile code is considered antiquated, dating back to the early 1970s and subsequently patched over and re-patched many times.  HB 242 would update current laws on dependency proceedings, family reunification, disposition of dependent children, mental health and other care for children in need of services, the emancipation of minors and more.

“We can do a better job of service to these children,” Willard said.

House Judiciary will hold a full committee hearing Thursday afternoon at the State Capitol.  A small number of adult system reforms proposed by the Special Council in its 2012 report will be contained in separate legislation expected next week.  Legislation passed by the General Assembly and signed by Governor Deal would become law on July 1.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.)

February 11, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment